Whitmer defends DHHS director vacationing out of state without being fully vaccinated

The head of the Michigan health department recently traveled to Alabama without being fully vaccinated as the state grappled with the worst COVID-19 trends in the nation.

Per Detroit Free Press:

The head of the Michigan health department recently traveled to Alabama without being fully vaccinated as the state grappled with the worst COVID-19 trends in the nation. 

That means Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel did not follow the guidance of the department she directs. 

But Gov. Gretchen Whitmer defended Hertel's actions on Wednesday, saying it's not her business what her top aides do on their off time. 

On Wednesday, the Free Press confirmed Hertel traveled to Alabama last week with her family. While Hertel was in Alabama, COVID-19 trends in Michigan remained the worst in the nation. 

The news came days after it was revealed that Trish Foster, Whitmer's chief operating officer, recently traveled to Florida for spring break. She posted photographs of the trip on social media, garnering almost immediate criticism from conservatives who pointed to state advisories that discourage travel.

"I'm not going to get distracted by partisan hit jobs on my team. There have never been travel restrictions in Michigan. There just haven't been," Whitmer said during a news conference. 

"What directors do on their personal time is their business, so long as they are safe, which is what we're asking everyone in this state do to: get vaccinated, mask up." 

At the start of the pandemic in 2020, Whitmer instituted an executive order that banned most travel between vacation homes and other residences within Michigan.

On April 5, Hertel's department issued an advisory recommending no one travel unless it is "unavoidable." 

"Travel increases your chance of spreading and getting COVID-19. We recommend that you do not travel at this time. Delay travel and stay home to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. Do NOT travel if you were exposed to COVID-19, you are sick or you test positive for COVID-19," reads the advisory

The advisory also says people who are not fully vaccinated should not travel. 

"If you are eligible, get fully vaccinated for COVID-19. Wait 2 weeks after getting your second vaccine dose to travel — it takes time for your body to build protection after any vaccination," the advisory states. 

It also says those who travel and are not fully vaccinated should quarantine when they come back to Michigan for at least seven days if they get a coronavirus test. If they do not get a test, the traveler should quarantine for 14 days. 

These mirror recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which also "discourages nonessential domestic travel by those who are not fully vaccinated."

Bob Wheaton, a health department spokesman, would not comment on the head of the department traveling out of state during the throes of the pandemic. But he confirmed Hertel received her second dose of the vaccine on Wednesday. 

"We do not discuss the director’s personal schedule," Wheaton said. 

"Director Hertel has the ability to work remotely and does so seven days a week as the department fights COVID-19 and works to get shots in arms so we can move forward from the pandemic." 

Wheaton did not respond to questions about her public schedule, instead referring the Free Press to an interview Hertel granted news outlet MIRS on Wednesday. MIRS originally reported Hertel's trip. 

Hertel said she and her family drove to Alabama, not stopping at a hotel along the way and getting food from drive-thru restaurants. She said they practiced social distancing and wore masks, and that she worked during the trip.

During an interview Monday on WILS-AM (1320), Hertel's husband — state Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, — acknowledged traveling to the Gulf Shores area. 

"We were very socially distant as you know, we would always do when we're doing those things. We didn't see very many people, to be honest with you," Hertel said, in response to questions from host Dave Akerly about a vacation. 

Whitmer critics pounced on the Hertel news, arguing it is evidence the governor believes her recommendations are for other people and not her administration. 

“Whitmer’s request to give her vacationing aides a little bit of grace falls flat when the state is handing out hundreds of citations and even arresting people for COVID-19 rule violations. The rules for thee but not for me mentality needs to end immediately," said Tori Sachs, executive director of conservative advocacy organization Michigan Rising Action. 

The Michigan Republican Party also blasted Hertel's decision. 

"The fact that Whitmer and her top staff think it’s appropriate to travel out of state on vacation as Michigan faces the worst COVID numbers of any state in the country just reveals the arrogance and condescending nature of this administration," said Ted Goodman, the MIGOP communications director.